Matthew Bronfman: Top US businessman in love with Israel

The prominent philanthropist talks about his famous father, his investing ally and connecting Soviet Jews to Judaism.

Matthew Bronfman (photo credit: Nathan Roie)
Matthew Bronfman
(photo credit: Nathan Roie)
The son of former World Jewish Congress president Edgar Bronfman, New York real-estate entrepreneur Matthew Bronfman has made a name for himself in both big business and the Jewish world, and has become a prominent philanthropist.
He is, inter alia, chairman of the international steering committee of Limmud FSU, a program focused on strengthening the Jewish identities of Russian-speaking Jews, and the chairman of the American Jewish Committee’s ACCESS, which trains Jewish professionals to shape public opinion and policy around the world.
As the biggest American Jewish investor in the Israeli economy, Bronfman is also the main shareholder in IKEA Israel, Israel Discount Bank and Shufersal.
The companies are also involved in charitable work, which include supporting AKIM, an association that helps rehabilitate mentally disabled people in Israel.
Bronfman, 52, did not have to take a course in how to win friends and influence people. It’s in his genes.
He may come from a famous family, but Bronfman has carved out his own niche as an immensely influential entrepreneur and philanthropist, both in the United States and Israel.
Debonair, smart, charming and funny, he has no airs about him and is clearly comfortable with people. I interviewed him in front of an audience at a Limmud FSU conference in Princeton, New Jersey, earlier this month.
How did you get involved in Limmud FSU?
[Limmud FSU founder] Chaim Chesler and I met seven years ago in Cordoba, Spain, at a World Jewish Congress governing board meeting, and Chaim explained to me what Limmud was, that it had started in England, etc.
He said, “Look, I think we should do one in Moldova and start connecting Soviet Jews to Judaism post 70 years of Communism.”
I knew from my experience working with my father [Edgar Bronfman] in the World Jewish Congress that there were so many organizations dealing with Russian Jews, but somehow nothing had really galvanized the younger generation. Everyone had told Chaim he would fail, because to get the cooperation of many different organizations in the Russian community was never going to happen.
I said to him, “We’ll give you $25,000 as seed money, put my name on it if you wish, and let’s go around and see if we can get other organizations to help us. And if you fail, you never met me. I don’t want to be associated with failure, so forget it!”
But the real key to the success of Limmud, particularly Limmud FSU, was that it was not going to be owned by the World Jewish Congress, nor by the Joint, nor by JDC, nor by anybody who all do very good works, but this program had to be owned by the participants. It had to be created, managed and promoted by the participants. Nobody who came to speak would be paid, nobody would be there to self-promote, that it had to be from the ground up.
And it was very experimental. That wasn’t a model that had been created before in the former Soviet Union. So we had a mini-Limmud in Moscow six years ago, and here we are today in six countries, with the enormous help of Sandra Cahn, Chaim and others. And it’s successful because the participants and volunteers run it.
And you’re doing the next one in Kishinev?
We’ll be there the first weekend of June.
How do you connect personally to that?
I was born in New York, my father in Montreal, and my grandfather was born in Soroki, about 35 miles from Kishinev. My grandfather [Samuel Bronfman] was a very, very proud Jew. He was taken to Canada when he was six months old. He didn’t have a personal feeling of the old country. As a matter of fact, he changed his date of birth by two years to say he was born in 1891 as opposed to 1889 and he said he was born in Canada.
In those days, record keeping wasn’t quite like it is today. It wasn’t until he passed away in 1971 that my father was going through all of his old stuff and discovered that he was born in Soroki in 1889. So we also celebrated his birthday two years later. But that’s my connection. So we’re going to go to Soroki, and to the cemetery and synagogue there, and I’m really looking forward to it. I think it’ll be very interesting.
Who was your hero growing up?
I’m going to give you an answer that perhaps will not surprise you. My father. My father was and continues to be my hero, and I can only hope that my children feel the same way one day, although I think at least for now they consider my father, their grandfather, to be their hero.
For those of you who don’t know, my father at the age of about 50 became the acting president of the World Jewish Congress, and at the age of 52 became the president and served in that role for 28 years. He was very involved in the struggle for Soviet Jewry, led the discovery of [former UN secretary-general] Kurt Waldheim’s Nazi past, and was single-handedly responsible for restitution with Swiss banks and insurance companies. I’m going to tell you something that was told to me at the first Limmud by [Rabbi] Adin Steinsaltz. He said to me, “Your father is one of the most impressive people I’ve ever met.”
You know, as a kid, you hear a lot of nice things about your father, and you think to yourself, “Thank you very much. I’ve heard it all before. What about me?” But he said, “Let me tell you why I say that. I met your father when he took over the World Jewish Congress in his early ’50s," and he said, "Frankly, your father knew nothing. He was very successful in business, but he knew little about politics, and Jewishly, he knew nothing. And I have watched him for 25 years, and your father has grown as a leader and Jewishly more in those 25 years than most people in a lifetime, and he didn’t start that process until he was in his 50s, when most people are ready to... head towards retirement."
And that is what is impressive. Not the accomplishments so much, but his growth – and his desire to continue to grow in those years. Perhaps that is the greatest reason he is my hero. It is a phenomenal lesson that at any age, we have the opportunity to learn and to grow in whatever way is important to us.
What motivates your philanthropy, especially giving to Jewish causes and Israel?
First of all, it is grounded in Jewish ethics and Jewish morals that we need to take care of each other. I think that’s the basis. My grandfather, who worked until the day he died, felt beyond blessed that he was in the West, having the opportunity to succeed. He had great pride in being Jewish, and he ran the Montreal Jewish community and was president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, and gave that sense of commitment to his two sons, my father and my uncle.
My uncle [Charles Bronfman] was one of the founders of Birthright, together with Michael Steinhardt. My younger brother and I are very involved in working in my father’s foundation. There’s a sense of klal Yisrael. When I wake up in the morning, it’s part of me, it just is.
We’re here for a purpose, for a reason. We’re here to be a light unto the nations, but really because we have something to offer. Therefore, the survival and the education of the Jewish people are vital. I really spend time on three charities, and they’re all different, but they all hit crucial elements in the Jewish world: The 92nd Street Y in New York, which is probably the biggest and most important cultural center, the American Jewish Committee, which is political, and Limmud, which is learning. Those three things together for me are critical elements to the survival of the Jewish people.
What made you invest in the Israeli economy?
You know, Warren Buffett is the largest investor in Israel, with his 80 percent share of Iscar. I have never met Warren Buffett, but I consider him my greatest ally, and I’ll tell you why.
When I started investing in Israel in 2003, you may remember, Arafat was alive, the intifada was raging, tourism was close to zero, the NASDAQ bubble had burst... and everybody thought I was truly meshuga, that I’d gone off the deep end. Then when Warren Buffett made his first investment outside the United States, in Israel, he made me legitimate. I consider him my greatest supporter.
Why did I start investing in Israel? Well, I would say it was 90 percent because I felt that there were incredible opportunities in Israel, because of the intelligence, the drive and the innovation. And it was a bad economic time, so if you believed that Israel was going to be around in 10, 15 or 20 years, it was a macro-bet. We didn’t invest in technology companies; we invested in base business, banking, retail through supermarket companies and then fortunately I was able to get the IKEA business, things that would probably track the Israeli economy, relatively, over time.
People said to me, if there was a bank in Turkey for sale, would you have bought it? And I said unlikely, probably not. So I would say the other 10% was Zionistic. There was the combination of the long-term family commitment to Israel, my comfort when I visit Israel and the economic opportunities, combined with the innovation and drive of the Israeli people.
People asked me once before, “How do you get people to invest in Israel?” And I said, actually I think you’re asking the wrong question.
I think the question is, “How do you get people to fall in love with Israel?” And you get people to fall in love by getting them to Israel. And the rest will go in whatever direction it goes in... that is the key. Because once you are there, believe me, you’ll fall in love!